On the afternoon of Jan. 17, when the temperature dipped below freezing, a family from Kingman drove to Wichita, dumped a 78-year-old relative at the Inter-Faith Inn homeless shelter and quickly drove away.
They left her on the sidewalk with her wheelchair and a few suitcases.
“She wasn’t crying,” case manager Amanda Merritt recalled. “But she was upset about the situation. She said they were kicking her out.”
They left so quickly that no one from the shelter was able to talk to them, Merritt said. They didn’t even knock on the shelter door to make sure there was room at the inn.
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“That’s unbelievable that someone would do that,” said Janis Cox, co-chairwoman of Advocates to End Chronic Homelessness, an area faith-based volunteer group.
Shelter staff took the woman, who was in poor health, inside.
To accommodate her frailties, the staff hustled to set her up with a room on the ground floor.
She stayed at the shelter more than two weeks until she found an out-of-state friend who agreed to take her in. She left Wichita a week ago.
The woman’s story may seem unbelievable, but it’s not that rare, said Sandy Swank, director of housing and homeless services for Inter-Faith Ministries.
A 2010 study by the Homeless Research Institute, an arm of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, projected that the number of elderly people who are homeless would increase by 33 percent, from 44,172 in 2010 to 58,772 by 2020, and would double to 95,000 by 2050.
“It seems like there are two main things going on,” said Nan Roman, president and chief executive of the alliance in Washington, D.C.
“One is that there’s a group of people who are homeless who are becoming older. They were younger homeless people, so the population is aging that way. The other thing is that our whole population is aging. Even though older people are less likely to be homeless than other people because they have more of a safety net, because there are more and more older people in general, we are going to have more and more elderly people vulnerable to homelessness.”
Numbers up locally
Swank sees the numbers increasing locally.
“I’ve been working at Inter-Faith since October 1990,” she said. “In the beginning, we’d have an occasional elderly person come in, but if they came in, they came in with someone else. They always had someone to look after them. In the last 10 years, we have seen more elderly people, and each year it seems like the number increases.”
Swank remembers another woman left at the shelter. She arrived in a hospital gown with no shoes. There was snow on the ground. The front left wheel of her wheelchair was off.
“I was just outraged,” Swank said.
The woman eventually was able to move into an apartment of her own.
Inter-Faith’s winter shelter has served 13 people over age 62 this year, more than double last year’s total of five.
Swank points to a few theories about why the numbers are up – including, of course, the economy.
“Years ago, families did look after families,” Swank said. “Today, because of the economy, a lot of people are at risk themselves. I think families can’t afford to take care of each other like they used to. And we’ve become more mobile. We move away from our families of origin. We’re spread out.”
Inter-Faith is seeing mostly elderly people whose spouses have died, Swank said. Their spouses might have left behind a pile of medical expenses or credit card debt. She remembers one elderly woman whose husband died, leaving her with debt she didn’t even know about.
“They end up losing everything,” she said. “They’re pretty vulnerable. They don’t have a lot of experience, especially when the partner that’s deceased was in charge of decisions. So they’re pretty clueless about what to do.”
Families ‘very stressed’
Public awareness about the increase in homelessness among the elderly is a good place to start, said Cox, chairwoman of the area task force.
“Families are very stressed,” she said. “With social services being cut by the government and nonprofits not receiving more donations, it just puts normal families under even more stress.”
The Homeless Research Institute recommended as part of its study that policymakers and leaders:
• Increase the supply of subsidized, affordable housing for seniors.
• Create sufficient permanent supportive housing to end chronic homelessness.
• Conduct research to better understand the specific needs of elderly people who are homeless.
“We’re millions of units short of low-cost housing,” said Roman, with the national alliance. “Not attending to it is not very smart because especially with older people, they’re going to get hospitalized, they’re going to get put in nursing homes, and those are very expensive things to happen. It’s much cheaper to keep them in regular housing.”
Roman also emphasized that people who are homeless age much faster. So a 50-year-old person without a home will have far more medical problems than a 50-year-old person who does have a place to call home.
The oldest person at Inter-Faith’s winter shelter was 83, Swank said.
She recalled a military veteran who didn’t have any living relatives.
“We sort of adopted him like a grandpa,” she said. “He had terminal lung cancer. We tore my office out of here and put a hospital bed in there. We’ve done extraordinary things. It’d be real easy to just say ‘no,’ but no can do.”
He stayed at the shelter until his pain became unbearable. He wanted to die at the shelter, Swank said, where he had some semblance of family.
“But we couldn’t administer pain meds,” Swank said. “We put him in an ambulance to the hospital.”
Homeless ‘off and on’ for 20 years
Dale Chilen recently landed in Inter-Faith’s winter shelter after a visit to the Robert J. Dole Veterans Administration Medical Center’s emergency room. A cab delivered the 78-year-old to the shelter on a Saturday night.
Swank just happened to see him arrive.
“He was so frail, in a wheelchair,” Swank said. “I paid the cab driver to get him to Safe Haven. He was too vulnerable anywhere else. We’re not a one-size-fits-all shelter, although sometimes I’d like to be.”
Chilen said he was born and raised in Kansas but most recently had been living in Reno, Nev.
He arrived in Salina at the beginning of the year, he said, “walked about 20 feet and fell and broke my hip.”
He said he went to a hospital in Salina and then to a senior center. He eventually came to Wichita.
Chilen stayed at Safe Haven, an Inter-Faith shelter for severely and persistently mentally ill or physically disabled people who are chronically homeless, for about a month.
The shelter “has been real good to me,” he said.
On Wednesday, he started moving into a low-income apartment for seniors with the help of Inter-Faith Ministries and the Veterans Administration.
The VA Center said it could not talk about specific patients because of privacy rules.
“We’re going to review the process to ensure we’re providing the best care for our veterans,” said Tyler Kilian, supervisor of ancillary services there.
Chilen, a Korean War veteran, said he has been homeless “off and on” for 20 years.
“I hate to admit it,” he said from his wheelchair, proudly looking at a brochure about his new apartment complex.